Texas Voters, Candidates Ready for Round Two

by Jessica Taylor May 30, 2012 · 11:59 AM EDT

Just one election wasn’t enough for primary voters in Texas on Tuesday night, so many crowded primaries are headed for a July 31 runoff. But one candidate who won’t get a second chance in extra innings is Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D), who fell to former El Paso city representative Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke, 39, defeated the incumbent by narrowly clearing the 50 percent threshold.

The GOP Senate primary is the top race to watch on July 31. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took 44 percent, and now will face former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz in two months in a one-on-one matchup.

Dewhurst edged out Cruz by 10 points, with the conservative favorite taking 34 percent. Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert took 13 percent, while former ESPN analyst Craig James registered just 3 percent.

The July runoff sets up a showdown between the longtime frontrunner Dewhurst, who poured nearly $10 million of his own money into the race so far, and Cruz, the favorite of national conservative groups.

Cruz was boosted in the multi-candidate primary by the Club for Growth, Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, all of which sought to keep Dewhurst under 50 percent of the vote and to boost Cruz into second place .

Dewhurst has long worried about a summertime runoff, when only the most faithful will head to the polls, probably benefitting Cruz. Now, following Dewhurst’s weaker than expected showing, nothing less than an all out war is expected, though Cruz will still need significant financial help from those same conservative groups to keep up with Dewhurst’s resources.

On the House side, Reyes was the most closely-watched incumbent of the night, and he was always the most endangered incumbent, though most Democratic observers still believed he would eke out a victory. O’Rourke narrowly won the primary without a runoff.

While the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability did spend over $240,000 against Reyes, the upset was brewing long before their recent interest and last-minute expenditures.

O’Rourke was a legitimate and well-funded challenger in his own right. He successfully attacked Reyes for paying family members from his campaign and raised questions over the congressman’s ethics. The barbs clearly had the incumbent worried, though Reyes remained confident and defiant heading into Tuesday.

The congressman more than tripled O’Rourke’s spending, got former President Bill Clinton to campaign for him in El Paso, secured an endorsement from President Obama and went aggressively after his challenger over his support of marijuana legalization and his past arrests, hoping that character questions would dent O’Rourke’s ascent.

While Reyes is the third incumbent to lose in a non-Member vs. Member primary, there still has been little evidence of a sweeping anti-incumbent wave. Through 15 states, 130 out of 133 Members (98 percent) have been renominated when not facing a House colleague.

The most worrisome outcome for national Democrats was in the 23rd District, where their preferred candidate, state Rep. Pete Gallego, came in second to former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez in the Democratic primary, 46 percent to 40 percent. This expansive western district, taking in parts of San Antonio, will be the only competitive race in the state this fall. Rodriguez lost in 2010 to Republican Quico Canseco and is not regarded as the strongest general election candidate. But Rodriguez and Gallego are headed to a runoff though, thanks to the 13 percent attorney John Bustamante garnered.

Democrats believe Gallego would mount the stronger challenge to Canseco and were impressed with his early fundraising, but observers readily admitted that Rodriguez still had a base and could pull off an upset victory in the primary. Rodriguez had raised only $242,000 through May 9 compared to Gallego’s $656,000, and Gallego outspent Rodriguez nearly three to one.

Meanwhile, Republicans are feeling much better about Canseco’s chances. The freshman was sitting on $770,000 on May 9 while both Democrats will have to fight it out for another two months. We’re moving this race from a Pure Toss-Up to Toss-Up/Tilt Republican.

Eighty-nine year old Rep. Ralph Hall was the only Republican even in slight danger in his primary, and the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability put over $160,000 into defeating him. But in the end, the oldest member of Congress easily repelled his challenge, taking 59 percent of the vote on his way to a seventeenth term.

Astute observers never believed Hall was in real jeopardy. Wealthy telecom executive Steve Clark, who put in over $300,000 of his own money and got 30 percent of the vote in 2010, only ramped up his campaign in the past two weeks -- not nearly enough time to mount a serious challenge. Clark drew 21 percent of the vote, while racing parts company owner Lou Gigliotti took 20 percent, building on the two percent he got in 2010.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D), another incumbent rumored to be in danger, easily dismissed her challenges, attorney Taj Clayton and state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, winning 70 percent of the vote. Most surprising though was that Clayton, who had impressed local observers with his fundraising and his campaign operation, took only 11 percent and finished third behind Caraway.

Republicans yet again failed to doom Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) in redistricting. Choosing to run in the new 35th District, which stretched from Austin to San Antonio, after his 25th District became unwinnable for a Democrat, he easily took 73 percent against two underfunded Bexar County Democrats.

With crowded primaries in four new seats the state gained in reapportionment, the quartet of races are all headed to a runoff, but with some surprise candidates sneaking through in a few.

In the 25th District, which snakes from the Fort Worth exurbs down to Austin, former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams was the dominant frontrunner in the 12-way primary in this solid GOP seat, taking a quarter of the vote. He’ll face college professor /tea party activist Wes Riddle, a long-shot who finished a distant second with 14 percent. Riddle, who put nearly $300,000 of his own money in the race, still likely won’t be able to match Williams’ fundraising muscle, who still had $760,000 in the bank on May 9. Williams, a former Senate candidate, wealthy car dealer and friend of the Bush family, will be the heavy favorite in July.

But most surprising was the lackluster performance of another Williams -- former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams -- who placed a meager fifth in the multi-candidate field and took just 10 percent. Once seen as a dynamic, promising African-American politician, his fundraising had greatly disappointed state Republicans. But few thought he’d fall that far in the field.

In the solidly Democratic North Texas 33rd District in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, the runoff field is set between state Rep. Marc Veasey and former state Rep. Domingo Garcia -- exactly what most strategists saw as the most probable outcome. Veasey finished first in the 11-candidate field with 37 percent, while Garcia took 25 percent.

Garcia, who is Hispanic, in theory should have the advantage in this Hispanic majority seat, but Veasey, who is African-American, is the favorite of much of the state establishment and is seen as a better all-around candidate. Observers expect Veasey will have the edge in July, and African-Americans are more likely than Latino voters to turn out a second time, too. Veasey has represented about 40 percent of the district in the Legislature, and he should benefit from his strong name ID in Tarrant County.

Attorney Filemon Vela has the edge in the south Texas 34th District, getting a dominant 41 percent of the vote in an eight-way contest. He’ll face Denise Saenz Blanchard on July 31, a former aide to ex-Rep. Solomon Ortiz, who snuck into the runoff by about 230 votes, getting about 12 percent.

In the solidly Republican, Houston-area 36th District, financial advisor Stephen Takach, who put in over $300,000 of his own money, was narrowly the top-vote getter but, in a surprise, he’ll face former Rep. Steve Stockman in the runoff.

Most GOP observers here believed state Sen. Mike Jackson was the tenuous frontrunner, though those same sources said he was putting in a lackluster effort. Takach had made Republicans take note with his personal money, but few still expected it would be Stockman who could sneak into the runoff. Stockman, who was briefly in office from 1995 until 1997 after a redistricting redraw, has mounted other comeback efforts since he was defeated by former Rep. Nick Lampson (who’s now running again in the 14th District) but has never gained traction. As of May 9, he had only $504 in the bank.

In the open 14th District GOP primary to succeed retiring Rep. Ron Paul (R), the mid-summer contest will come down to top vote-getters state Rep. Randy Weber, who earned 27 percent, and Pearland City Councilwoman Felicia Harris, who took 19 percent in the 11-way field. The winner will face Lampson in the fall. Democrats hope to make this Galveston seat competitive, but for now it’s still an uphill climb and will likely remain solidly in the GOP column.